Sunday, November 7, 2010

Varying Degrees of Intrusion

It is, no doubt, another innovation designed to deliver us from our more slothful evil twins.  And, come Monday, thousands of folks will roll out of bed, unaware that their clock radios had automatically “Fallen Back” in the tiny hours of Sunday morning.  They will head off to work right on time, with clock radio, computer and cell phone throbbing along in silent syncopation with the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the U.S. Naval Observatory. Personally, I found it just a bit creepy.

I have come to accept that my cell phone will keep track of the vagaries of time zones as I wander around the country or the world.  That falls within its job description, that’s why no one wears a watch anymore, except for bling appeal.  A cell phone is supposed to “reach out and touch someone” as Ma Bell was wont to say, back in the less politically correct 1980s.  But my clock radio?  How did it know that it was supposed to “fall back” at 2:00 a.m. on this particular Sunday morning?  My wristwatch in the drawer didn’t know it was supposed to “fall back.” The microwave didn’t know it was supposed to “fall back.” The oven clock didn’t know it was supposed to “fall back.”  How did the clock radio know it was supposed to “fall back”?  To whom, or to what, is my clock radio talking in the middle of the night?

I realize that it is probably no great feat of programming to tell a machine when “Spring Forward,” 2:00 a.m. on the second Sunday in March; and “Fall Back,” 2:00 a.m. on the first Sunday in November, will occur for the next gazillion years and put it on a chip the size of a gnat’s eyelash.  But how does the radio know what “today” is?  I didn’t “set up” the date when I pulled it out of the box.  I just plugged it in and toggled up the correct time.  So how did it know where it was, in its infinite calendar, the moment I plugged it in?  How did the radio know if it was June, July or January?  You see, it had to know that if it was going to "Fall Back" at just the right instant.  If the answer is “the chip just knows,” we are neither comforted nor amused.  What else does the chip know?

We hear a lot about privacy in digital spaces these days.  It usually centers around the improper use of information that we, at some point via some device, intentionally tossed out into “Cyber Cloud Cuckooland.”  This sentient radio is, to my somewhat paranoid mind, a bird of a different feather.  The radio – without my instructions or permission, mind you – appears to be in communication with some entity that feeds information into this appliance in my home.  “Well, duh.  What does a radio do, dude? It brings stuff into your home – like music and words.”  True, but we did not request this channel. We were not informed of this channel.  "Back channels" are supposed to be the stuff of spy novels.

Perhaps my paranoia stems from my deep understanding that communication is transactional.  If a device can store or receive “Spring Forward” or “Fall Back” data without my instruction, it is technological child’s play to give it transmission capacity as well.  Want to walk a little way down that path with me?  Consider Microsoft’s new gaming rave, the Kinect.  It sounds awesome.  Three cameras peer into your home and allow you to interact with games as if you were actually up there on the screen.  No wires, no remote, you move, it sees you and reacts.  Now consider that last sentence all by itself: No wires, no remote, you move, it sees you and reacts.  You perceive, perhaps, the reason a shiver just ran down my spine.

When someone seems to look the latest multi-gigabyte gizmo gift horse in the mouth, it is easy to cry “Luddite!” and trot out the myriad wonders that technology has given us.  I do not deny them.  I have no desire to live in some seemingly bucolic past where we spent most of our lives finding or raising food, where, in lieu of vaccines, children died of the measles, and, think about it – there was no Novocain! But, I must repeat a favorite mantra: the role of technology in society is a continual negotiation, we ask and the engineers respond.  The first part of the equation must dominate.  We must be thoughtful when we make demands, and bestow limitless trust upon, the technologists who create our toys.  Our most powerful tools can also be our most dangerous weapons.  Human intent defines the difference.

Garth Brooks wrote, “Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.” There is an oblique B-side to that hit: “Be careful what you ask for, you may get it.”

1 comment:

  1. You must have an atomic alarm clock? Those things are set to GMT via radio waves. I never really thought of it before, but Kinect might be a bit HAL-ish. I would say the only big difference between the Kinect and HAL is that our lives are not resting in Micro$oft's circuits just yet, but then again technology is a slippery upward slope.